Breastfeeding and "Discretion Requested"

2002 July, from Barb Strange of BACE (Breastfeeding Action Committee of Edmonton)

The words below were originally messages sent to LACTNET on July 17, 2002. We hope that you read all three parts, for there is much insight here, whether you are interested in breastfeeding, topfreedom, or both.

PART I analyzes the notion of "discreet" and what its insidious results are. It also makes the connection between breastfeeding and topfreedom, as does PART II, which contains important quotations from women on the subject. PART III describes how the city of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada switched its policy from being inimical towards breastfeeding to the opposite.

Anyone who has ever heard that a woman may be topfree only if she is breastfeeding---the law in many American jurisdictions in particular---should pay particular attention to these comments and analyses.


PART I: Discretion Requested

On July 11th, Debbie wrote in regard to Disneyland, "I gather that discreet moms don't have much trouble, but those who are less than discreet could easily be told to go to the Baby Station . . . In the past, I have had two mothers report difficulties in Disney Stores, although I might add that one of them decided to sit right in front of a cashier's desk (I usually say that discretion is an issue)."

Although I don't wish to be confrontational, I am bothered by this and would like to address it. What is wrong with sitting in front of the cashier's desk to nurse? To whom is it that you are saying that "discretion is an issue"? Who is it an issue for? I don't mean to be coy; it's just that I'm really not sure what you are trying to say. It's OK to nurse at Disneyland, but it's not OK or not prudent to do it in front of the cashiers? Why would that be any different from anywhere else? And if you are "less than discreet", you shouldn't be surprised if someone tells you to go to the Baby Station?

I think by adopting the language of discretion, e. g. assuring people that we are discreet when we nurse in public, reassuring others that most nursing moms are discreet, anyway, subtly (or perhaps not so subtly) warning new moms that they need to be "discreet" if they don't want to have problems nursing in public, or even teaching moms how they may go about nursing "discreetly"---we are reinforcing the notion that it's OK to nurse in public, but only as long as certain codes of conduct or rules are followed. The message seems to be, go ahead and nurse, but be sure that you are "discreet" and expect trouble if you aren't.

What constitutes being "discreet" anyway? What about the mom with a fussy new baby who doesn't always latch on right away, the "moving target" kind of baby? Is mom failing to be discreet if she doesn't get the baby latched on quickly enough for others' liking? What about the mom who doesn't quite get the clothes and the baby all arranged just so right away? What about the situation with an older baby keen to look around and see what's going on, who will repeatedly come off the breast to check things out, then go back to her "snack"? And the baby or toddler who hates to be covered with a blanket or likes to lift mom's top? What about the baby who wants to nurse while mom's in the swimming pool? And what if, horrors, the mom believes that breasts are for breastfeeding and nothing to be ashamed of, and doesn't even try to cover up while nursing?

All of these women, from the inexperienced, flustered new mom struggling to latch and cover up at the same time, to the proud, experienced mom who carries on, taking no notice of others, could be accused of not being "discreet". I think this is a word that others use to keep us in line and which we must avoid using if we want to empower women to breastfeed.

Last year I was asked not to nurse my one and a half year old son in one of our city swimming pools, a request I took great exception to. I will talk more about that in PART III, but for now I will say that after this incident, I did a lot of research and found out that incidents where women have been asked not to breastfeed in public, or have been asked to breastfeed more "discreetly," are more common than I had thought. I also found quite a number of studies of women's attitudes towards and experiences with breastfeeding; many of them indicate that breastfeeding in front of others, even within the home, is a significant issue.

For example, a 1995 Health Canada study found that most mothers who discontinued breastfeeding before four months "remained housebound or restricted in their movement while breastfeeding" to avoid the social stigma associated with nursing in public. A 1991 Chicago study found that 55% of women who had chosen to bottle-feed gave reasons for not breastfeeding such as embarrassment and not feeling comfortable with breastfeeding. In one study, fathers taking childbirth classes in five private hospitals in Houston were surveyed on their attitudes towards breastfeeding. Seventy-one percent of the men whose spouses were planning to exclusively breastfeed and 78% of the men whose spouses were planning to exclusively formula-feed indicated that breastfeeding was "not acceptable in public". Still other studies show that the attitude of the mother's partner is an important part of her feeding decision. This is only some of the research in this area. There are also numerous "breastfeeding shaming" cases to be found on the Internet, including on LACTNET.

Our choice of language is important. Just as I think we need to talk in terms of the normalcy of breastfeeding and the inferiority of its artificial substitute wherever we can, I think we also need to watch our language when speaking with others about breastfeeding in public. In particular, we might want to rethink our well-meaning advice to new mothers who ask about "how to breastfeed discreetly in public." Although we will probably give tips when asked, such as "feed baby before he/she is frantic" and so on, we can also gently introduce the idea that any onlookers' discomfort with breastfeeding is really their own problem. We can also say that unless people are around nursing moms in their daily lives, they don't tend to notice moms breastfeeding, which I believe is true. It's just not on the radar of the average person, for the most part. And we can avoid using the "D" word.

Although there are jurisdictions where breastfeeding in public might technically be illegal, I don't know of any cases where women breastfeeding have been convicted, let alone charged with indecent exposure or public nudity. Does anyone know differently? On the contrary, interfering with a woman breastfeeding may itself be illegal. Even in jurisdictions which haven't enacted laws specifically protecting a woman's right to breastfeed in public, their human rights statutes invariably include sex as a prohibited form of discrimination. There is Canadian case law (courts, employment tribunals, human rights tribunals, etc.)---and I'm willing to bet US as well---saying that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy and/or breastfeeding constitutes sex discrimination. My point here is that women breastfeeding need not fear the law; indeed, it is their harassers who should.

Informing women of their civil rights in this regard shouldn't be necessary, but it is. One of the women in our breastfeeding advocacy group thought it was illegal to breastfeed at a public swimming pool (more on that later). She was relieved, obviously, to find out that this is not so. Good for her that she breastfed anyway, but not so good for others who are too intimidated to do so.

I look forward to the day when women are able to freely remove their tops wherever and whenever men are free to do so. I say this not because I have a burning desire to bare my breasts in public. As a small-breasted woman who has internalized (North American) society's norms valuing large breasts and devaluing small ones, I have no desire to reveal my breasts to others; and as a citizen of a rather northerly, cold climate, there are only a few weeks a year where it might be possible to go topfree even if I did want to!

Nevertheless, I look forward to that day because I think it will represent another step away from repressive attitudes towards women's bodies, especially our breasts. If fully naked breasts in all their shapes and sizes became something you could see anywhere, anytime, as the breast became de-eroticized (except perhaps in private between mutually inclined and consenting adults), breastfeeding in public would cease to be an issue, and no longer would anyone have to say that "discretion is an issue". For this reason, I applaud "topfree activists," although I do not have the courage to join them. For example, see A 1992 New York state court decision quoted on that site says, in part:

"[Defendants] contend that to the extent that many in our society may regard the uncovered female breast with a prurient interest that is not similarly aroused by the male equivalent, that perception cannot serve as a justification for differential treatment, because it is itself a suspect cultural artifact rooted in centuries of prejudice and bias toward women."

Hear, hear, Judge Titone! See also "Breastfeeding Frenzy" and on the same site, "My Breasts Reclaimed," another breastfeeding-in-public story.

PART II: Words of Wisdom from LACTNETTERS

I suspect most women faced with "requests" to hide their breastfeeding are simply too embarrassed to question or to assert their rights. I also suspect they do a lot less breastfeeding in public because of these social barriers, some of which are real and some of which are probably only perceived. But perceived or not, they are still barriers. I was always one to do just as I pleased when I breastfed my kids, in public or otherwise, but not every woman has the social support or confidence to do that.

On this subject I can do no better than quote a few posters from the past.

Katherine Dettwyler, May 1996 (

In my humble opinion (as always), we have to take the stance that breasts are perfectly normal, standard body parts, designed for feeding babies. The more people are "exposed" to breasts in this context, the more it will come to seem perfectly normal and natural to them, and breasts will lose their artificial, sexual connotations. If we continue to act as though breasts are primarily sex objects, to be kept hidden and out of sight except when absolutely necessary for feeding a baby (or for use in selling beer or cars or sex), then we'll never see the day when breastfeeding is accepted as normal and natural, and many women will never be able to feel comfortable nursing in public.

Katherine Dettwyler, November 1997 (

When women stop being discreet about breastfeeding, then society will change, and disgust/over-nosiness about breastfeeding will be a thing of the past.

Katherine Dettwyler, July 2000 (

. . . caring more about the feelings of those who are offended by something natural and good than about the person who is doing the natural and good thing is the same, logically, as caring more about the feelings of people who are racist or sexist or who think handicapped people should be hidden away.

Diane Mulonas, May 1996 (

I believe the only way to change how people view breastfeeding is to change how society sees breasts.

Mary Broadfoot, May 1996 (

. . . if you start to talk in terms of not objecting if "a woman's breast is exposed briefly or to the extent it needs to be exposed to feed the child," you are making life difficult or impossible for women. What was necessary for me when I was feeding my baby is different from what was necessary when I was feeding my toddler, and was different from what was necessary for my friend, and even more so for my friend who nursed her twins simultaneously, and didn't have time or the inclination (and why should she?) to feed them one at a time.

If you make permission to breastfeed in public conditional, no matter how noble your reasons, you will give women worry ("Am I showing too much?" "Is it all right here?"), and give ammunition to those who just don't like breastfeeding. ("I was offended." "She didn't need to show that much.")

Breastfeeding is too important for mother and child to allow our sensitivities to interfere. I am working to make breastfeeding a normal and unexceptional experience, and I live in hope that we will reach the stage where no mother will keep bottles and abm in the house for trips out in case she offends anyone by breastfeeding her baby.

We are adults. Surely we can put the children's needs and rights first.

And if we all went out and were so discreet, then no one would know what we were doing, and if no one ever sees breastfeeding, how can it ever be normal?

PART III: Breastfeeders' Revenge (or, Tit for Tat)

Sorry, just couldn't stop myself from using that title. As I said in PART I, last year I was asked not to nurse my one and a half year old son in one of the city swimming pools in Edmonton, Alberta. In short order after my "incident" at the city pool, I found that many other women breastfeeding their children had been asked to stop nursing or exit the swimming pool. The pool administration also admitted to me that women breastfeeding were asked to cover up or move to the change room if another patron complained. This in a location where scantily clad young women are the norm!

Thinking she would shock me into agreeing with their position, the lifeguard also told me, "Do you know there was a lady breastfeeding a five year old here last week?!!" Of course my response was, "So?"

What ensued was the formation of a breastfeeding advocacy "committee" and the submission of a 38-page report (containing 106 footnotes and many more references; about half of it in appendices) by the committee to the City of Edmonton. This report outlined the problem as we saw it and looked at the issue from a number of different perspectives, including the nursing mother's, the baby's, and a lactation consultant's---as well as the legal and cultural perspectives. It also contained information from a number of different sources, including the Red Cross, the YMCA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the CDC, on swimming safety and infection control issues (yes, the "breastmilk fouling the pool" thing is bogus). This was followed by a complete capitulation on the city's part.

In a three-page letter (which my husband calls the Terms of Surrender), the city revoked their written policy regarding breastfeeding. The first part of the city policy had called for absolutely no breastfeeding in the water and cited concerns for the child's health if she ingested pool water. The second part outlined a procedure for dealing with complaints from patrons about women breastfeeding on the pool deck. The procedure entailed suggesting to the woman nursing that she cover up and that she might want to go to the changing room to finish feeding.

The city's response to our report made it clear that breastfeeding could occur without restriction in these facilities, and that any complaints received from patrons would be resolved without approaching the nursing woman. Needless to say we were very pleased, and our new group went on to have a very successful World Breastfeeding Week event, including a nurse-in at city hall, which was well covered by local media.

All seemed well until this spring, when I received a call from a woman who had just been told to exit one of the YMCA pools in the city while breastfeeding her daughter. Among a number of specious reasons she was given for this request were that her breastmilk might contaminate the pool and she wasn't properly supervising her five year old while breastfeeding her other daughter.

A female staff member also told her that other women had the decency to breastfeed discreetly---there's that word again---and that she could use the facilities if she kept in mind that other people might be offended if she was "not covering herself properly." In the mom's words, she refused to agree to "shroud" herself and informed the staff member that it was inappropriate for her to ask her to do so. Hooray for uppity women!

Members of our committee and this woman met with the YMCA CEO, who apologized for the incident and reassured us that it would not happen again. He would not put a new policy in writing, unfortunately. However, Tuesday, July 9th we held a press conference at city hall, in which we congratulated both the city and the YMCA for their progressive (new) policies welcoming breastfeeding women and their families to their facilities.

The event was well attended by the media. Lots of breastfeeding moms and their families were featured prominently with voice-overs by news readers, including a shot of one of our committee members with her six month old twins in a double sling, one of them nursing at the time. With this kind of attention, we are hoping mothers will be emboldened and pool staff more, shall I say, discreet, in the future.

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